CLAYTON YEUTTER, the new Republican national chairman, took some flak from Democratic Party leaders recently when he implied that members of Congress who voted against the Jan. 12 resolution authorizing force in the Gulf would pay a political price in 1992. Mr. Yeutter's Democratic counterpart, Ron Brown, accused him of bringing ``petty partisan politics'' into a national crisis. Except for that little flareup, partisanship has been largely subordinated since the Gulf war began. With the lives of American soldiers on the line, politicians have rallied around the flag. During President Bush's State of the Union speech last week, each reference to the troops evoked a burst of bipartisan applause.
But while Americans are united in their support for the men and women in uniform, they are still divided about the war itself. Inevitably the divisions will show up in politics as the country looks ahead to the '92 presidential and congressional elections.
Democrats have played down the fact, but the congressional votes on the resolution to use force hewed strikingly to party lines. All but two of the senators and three of the representatives who voted against the president were Democrats. Most of the Democrats regarded as potential presidential candidates in '92 - Sens. Lloyd Bentsen, Sam Nunn, and Paul Simon, Rep. Dick Gephardt, Gov. Mario Cuomo, Jesse Jackson - were in favor of giving sanctions more time. Of the likely Democratic contenders, only Sens. Al Gore and Charles Robb supported the use of force.
This bespeaks not ``petty politics,'' but rather a distinct difference in world view between the two parties, one that has been generally consistent since Vietnam. (It is symbolically, if not politically, noteworthy that George McGovern is testing the presidential waters again.) The difference is summed up by those imprecise but nonetheless useful terms ``hawks'' and ``doves.''
Current polls indicate that the hawks are on the wing. But a year from now the outcome of the war will be known, and the costs tallied.
If the war is decisive, quick, and without high American casualties, it will probably help the GOP. Even then, however, Democrats may be able to argue that the same result could have been achieved at less cost in lives and money. If the war is protracted and bloody, those who counseled patience may be politically vindicated.
Politics won't be kept out of the war - nor should it be so long as the debate is principled and not vituperative. The war is part of a larger question: America's role in the post-cold-war world. There is no more important political issue.